Dad's Song Is At the Heart Of 'Read With Me' Memoir

Nov 20, 2017

David W. Berner's latest book is about a song he wrote for his children and his journey to perform it for the first time in public.

Berner's composition, a finalist in a national contest, is the star of October Song: A Memoir of Music and the Journey of Time. His book is our Read With Me selection for November.

Before we get to the song's debut at a landmark venue, let's start with its birthplace.

In the Summer of 2011, Berner was a resident at The Kerouac Project, a home in Orlando, Fla., where Jack Kerouac wrote his novel The Dharma Bums from 1957-58.

"Actually, he had lived at the back part of the house with his mother," Berner said, "and there's a photograph of him in that house from The New York Times when they came down to interview him. And it's from right where I was, right where I was sleeping, right where I was writing."

Staying in that room, according to Berner, was a heady experience. For three months, he worked on a book manuscript and a song for his two teenaged sons.

"They were going through the growing pains of that time," Berner said. "You know what it's like in high school -- it's an awful place for a lot of people -- and I felt kind of bad. I was 1,500 miles away from them, and they were going through these troubles."

The song, "To A Better Day," was meant to show that their struggles were temporary. Berner recorded an .mp3 audio file and didn't think much about it until 2014 when he saw an ad for a songwriting contest held by Rapunzel's in Charlottesville, Va.

Berner had never heard of that venue, but he submitted "To A Better Day" plus a song he wrote for his girlfriend Leslie. Three weeks later, he got a response:

"I'm a finalist. One of my songs made the cut," I told Leslie over the phone. I was perplexed, somewhat astonished, and skeptical ...

"There are thirty finalists, and all of them -- including me -- are being asked to come to Virginia to perform live," I added.

This was ridiculous. Nuts. What was I going to do? Travel some 700 miles to play a three-minute song in front of a bunch of drunks in a bar?

"You have to do this!" Leslie said, without hesitation. "You simply have to go."

After researching Rapunzel's, Berner got a sense of the club's importance among fans of Americana music. Still, there was a fly in the ointment:

"They didn't pick your song."

Leslie laughed. "What's with that?"

It didn't matter. She was still going and so was I.

The couple drove from Chicago, arriving in Virginia's wine country during the peak of Fall. You can see Berner read the opening pages of their journey in the video below.

In their motel room, Leslie researched wineries to visit while Berner began stringing his guitar:

I unwound the low E string from its paper packaging and stretched it along the fretboard, tugging the string's hard metal end into the bridge and pushing in the pin. The tuner drew the string taut. I skipped the A string, knowing it would be troublesome.
The D, G, B and high E went on perfectly, but as I pulled the A string across the body and slid it through the tuning peg hole, the entire tuner mechanism on the back of the guitar's head fell into my lap. All of it. Every piece. The A tuner had been stripped years ago, but I'd figured a way around it.
For decades, I used the lever on my metal capo like a screwdriver, placing it in the groove of the A peg, rotating it past the flaw. But now the tuner itself, the metal casing and the tiny screws that held it together had collapsed. Really? This happens right now? I had the other guitar, yes, but the Yamaha was my baby.

Berner improvised a solution to get the Yamaha working again. Soon he and Leslie were off to Rapunzel's. In an interview with WNIJ, the author shared his memories of the place.

"It was gritty, you know, hardwood floors, and a little bit of a smell of beer and coffee, books on the wall, and pictures of performers who had been there before," he said. "I fell in love with it, it was wonderful."

After checking in, Berner got a look at his competition. "I wish I could remember their names," he said. "There were tatted-up girls, old guys, young guys. Guys that looked like they wanted to be Neil Young."

One woman particularly impressed him with her performance. "I don't mean this in a disparaging way: She looked like a cashier at Wal Mart -- just a regular gal, probably mid-thirties," Berner said. "She was one of the best songwriters there. Everything she did just pulled my heart."

We'll let you discover who won the contest. Regardless of the outcome, Berner considers the experience deeply rewarding.

If your view of Charlottesville is tainted by last August's deadly clash between white nationalists and protestors, Berner wants you to know that the community is about much more than that one incident.

"It's a southern city, but don't stereotype it," Berner said. "People do it; they think of 'All those dumb hicks down there who don't know any better.' It's just not true." The author describes Charlottesville and the surrounding area as a "gorgeous" part of the country with people who are sophisticated and aware.

"It's a horrific thing that happened there," Berner said. "I don't claim to know Charlottesville backwards and forwards, but I would go back in a moment and embrace it -- a lot of very good people. And it's true of a lot of places in our country, really. You know, ignorance is what breeds prejudice. And the more you get to know people and get to know an area, all of that falls away."

David W. Berner is a longtime news reporter for WBBM-AM Chicago. October Song is a finalist for the 2017 American Book Fest "Best Book Award, Memoir."

Next month, our "Read With Me" series returns to fiction with The Wanderers, a novel by Marydale Stewart.

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